I recently had the chance to pick the brain of Pete Smith of TE Connectivity, on the topic of coming developments we can expect to see in the drone industry. TE Connectivity is a $12 billion global technology leader and one of the largest sensor companies in the world, and as senior manager of sensor product knowledge and training at TE Connectivity, Pete Smith is extremely knowledgable on the relevance of the development of sensors and related technology for the new innovations rolling out in the drone industry.
We covered the topics of developments in the drone industry in general, and then got in to more specifics on the expected progress of drones as a mode of transportation in the near future.
Read for yourself what you can expect to see developing in the exciting frontier of the drone industry in the next few years. And if anyone should know, it’s an expert in the field like Pete Smith.
The future of the drone industry
What are the most amazing innovations on the drone market today that seemed impossible 5 years ago?
Miniaturization and digitization have been two of the trends to emerge in the last five years. Consider battery technology for one. Five years ago, you couldn’t find a battery light enough to put into a flying machine. The same is true for sensors. The average commercial drone has anywhere from 8 to 15 sensors in it just for the flight control system; without the miniaturization of these sensors, drones would have significantly more weight to support in flight.
Very sophisticated signal processing has also evolved in the last five years, meaning it’s now possible to take a variety of inputs from various sensors to allow the drones to fly in a stable way. When you fly in a commercial aircraft, there are a ton of systems in that airplane that makes sure the flight is stable and this is the same for drones. What happened is that they’ve combined these technologies with very sophisticated real-time signal processing to give it the air-borne stability it needs to function.
What innovations do you predict over the next 10 years? What new applications do you see for drones over the next 10 years?
The possibilities for drones on the commercial front are endless. But I think it’s safe to say that we will see industries like agriculture transformed by drones in the next 10 years. Think of a fruit farmer being able to use a sensor-enabled drone to collect information from RFID devices and transmit that data to the farmer to enable precision in harvest. With accurate sensing data, a farmer could know precisely which tree to cherry pick or harvest, as opposed to its not-ripe neighbor.
Another area that will develop out is drones in disaster management. Consider what we just saw in Houston with Hurricane Harvey. While drones were used in some instances to survey damage, I think that within the next 10 years, drones will be able to be deployed as a flood begins to measure and transmit data in to first responders, helping them understand in real-time the hardest hit areas, allowing them to more efficiently deploy rescue teams to the right places at the right time.
A third area emerging right now is Enterprise Asset Management (EAM). Some companies have valuable assets that are located in remote and inaccessible locations, and the companies spend a lot of money to send teams of people to inspect and manage these assets. Good examples of this are railroads and oil pipeline companies. Drones with cameras and data collection systems are starting to be deployed to do detailed inspections of these types of assets.
Drones are transforming transportation as we know it
How close do you think we actually are to large-scale, commercial package delivery?
Package delivery is definite on the horizon but it’s one of the areas that will require robust regulatory guidelines and safety standards be established. I anticipate we’ll begin to see commercial package delivery within five years. Large-scale package delivery has already begun in some third world countries where drones are being used to deliver needed medical supplies to areas inaccessible by roads.
What obstacles need to be overcome before that can become a reality?
The biggest barriers to large-scale commercial package delivery are safely, privacy and regulatory requirements. Right now with there’s a huge move towards safety first to protect people on the ground as well as passengers. Therefore the reliability of the components of the drone has to be on par with the reliability that’s expected in anything that flies.
As for privacy – it’s a concern. People worry about a drone flying over their yard or home and invading their privacy. Most of the regulations around drone privacy are at the state or local level, with few federal-level regulations at the moment regarding privacy. This is an area that will need to be addressed at the federal level before commercial delivery can take off (pun intended).
Which leads to the third obstacle – regulations. In the summer of 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration announced rules on drone use for commercial operations. The regulations require that a pilot only operate one drone at a time, within his or her line of sight; operations are also limited to daytime hours. The regulations also restrict the weight of drones, the speed at which they travel and the height at which they can fly. In May 2017, a federal appeals court struck down a portion of the FAA rules regarding the registration and operation of drones, which means the rule makers must go back and rewrite these parts to accommodate all the interested parties. Once everyone agrees on all the provisions, drone manufacturers and operators will have a clear path to move forward.
All of these regulations could be inhibitors to success in commercial delivery. That being said, advocate groups are pushing the government to establish rules and regulations for drone operations that will allow the markets to grow and adapt while addressing the public’s concerns regarding privacy and safety.
How close are we to personal passenger drones as a practical means of transport?
Well when you look at everything we’d need to consider in terms of safety and privacy around package delivery, it stands to reason that transporting people will require a lot more time, testing and oversight. I think we are probably 10-15 years away from passenger drones becoming a reality.
Many thanks to Pete for sharing of his time and insights with our readers at Droneblog! To learn more about TE Connectivity and how they are integral to the advances being made in the drone industry, visit their site at www.te.com